Sunday, 10 April 2011

Of Earthquakes, Opera and Hiking in Sary Chelek

Wanderers in a white land
I feel a judder and then a sensation of motion somewhat akin to being a bit squiffy after one too many glasses of pimms    What has occured?  Is it the lumbering passing of a convoy of trucks along Sovietskaya road below?  No, I have just eperienced my first earthquake, a little brother to the hiedous behemoth which devestated Japan mere days before.  And it is, frankly, a little underwhelming.  Though this does not stop it spooking a few of my students, who inform me, 'this is not a good building to be in.'.  Hhhm, not reassuring news.  But then Iskender (a pleasure to have in the classroom and incidentally a big Chris Rea fan) breaks into a rousing chorus of Bobby McFerin's Don't Worry (Be Happy) and this inexplicably calms everyone down.

- / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - \ - / - / - \ - / - \ - / -
I feel a judder and then a sensation of motion somewhat akin to being a bit squiffy after one too many glasses of pimms     What has occured?   I've fallen face first into a two foot drift of snow.  That's what's happened.  I've been carearing around in this, disoriented, cod-inebriated  fashion for a good hour now, staggering along behind the rest of the group with my balance all shot to hell.
Perhaps we should backtrack a little.  The trip during which I am tripping is to the mountain lakes of Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve.  The planning for this trip was extensive, essentially consisting of a phone call to CBT Kyrgyzstan where we were told it was madness to go trekking in Sary Chelek this time of year, that treks there didn't start til May and we'd be damn fools to attempt it.  A phonecall to another rep, who may have been a bit tipsy and suicidally bored at the time, gave a slightly different opinion:

                    <<Come over, it'll be fine!>>

So we headed to a map shop tucked round the corner of the Kyrgyz cartographic institure and clearly signposted with an A4 piece of paper saying 'Maps in English', and purchased a map of Jalal-Abad province in glorious technicolour...

We head eastwords across the plain, traversing the wasteland of Gorgoroth to the very foot of Mt. Doom
Over Gerorgian food (an extremely tasty, spicy stew type cuisne that I'd never encountered before) that night we (we being Dillon 'D-Solid' Cases, my fine co-northeasterner Stuart Colquhan and the newly arrived in town Alec Forss) arrange to meet at 7:30am the following day and get set off nice and early.
I wake up sharpish next morning, brush my teeth, check I've got everything in my backpack.  The doorball rings.  It''s Alec arriving to inform me that although he had brought everything necessary for backpacking with him to Kyrgyzstan, he'd unfortunately forgot to bring a beckpack to put them in, so was going to have to regretfully bow out of this one.
Undettered, I wend my way to the rendezvous point; Stuart and D-Solid's fine abode.  I arrive at the flat at 7:30am prompt; the door is opened by a bleary-eyed, pyjama-d Dillon.  He is not packed and has emails he needs to send.  On the sofa lies a crashed-out Stewart, sporting a sign which says:

                                <<Wake me immediately!>>

This instruction being carried out, he precedes to open his eyes, gaze around and begin swearing volubly, this toxic stream of obscenity carries on unabbated for about an hour.  It transpires that he's been drinking all night, got stuck in the middle of a heated row for which he spent several hours playing peacemaker, and has had approximatley an hour and half's sleep
After a few hours of variously frantic and lackadaisical packing we head off to get essential supplies.  These essentials include oranges (bloody expensive), sausages, goose liver paté and vodka. 
Stuart has realised he's forgetten to bring a hat and gloves, so we stop of at Osh bazaar, which is where we need to go to get taxis anyway.    He disappears into the densely packed throng of stalls while me and D-Solid provide idle amusement to a few pre-pubescent bazaar kids who know two words in English and aren't afraid to use them...repeatedly, repetetively, seemingly endlessly.  After half and hour, Stuart has not returned and we are beginning to get a wee bit concerned.  Five minutes later, he appears with not a glove to be spoken of, with a hat that merely says 'ATTACK' in large letters on it and is a few sizes too small and informs us he has been shaken-down by the police and they've been practising their sleight of hand by slyly pocketing 500 som.
Slightly, but not unduly, deterred we hop a taxi to take us to a the village of Kara Jigatch, where our homestay man is due to pick us up and deliver us to our evenings rest.  It;s a considerable journey and we stop off at a pitstop cafe on the way, where I engage in a fine lagman (a Central Asian dish of thick noodle stew), Stuart has a fine roast chicken and D-Solid ends up with what could best be described as a lump of slightly dried-out spam.

D-Solid, master of concealment
At nightfall, we approach Kara Jigatch.  But something is awry.  Our man is nowhere to be seen, the light is switfly vanishiing, his mobile is swtiched off, we are stood next to a billiard hall and surrounded by boozed up Kyrgyz fellas, a phone call to our man's house confirms his wife doesn't have a damn clue where he is either.  In desparation, we get a taxi to the homestay, and by taxi I mean a beaten-up old banger driven by two drunk Kyrgyz twenty somethings.  They laugh, burst into song, stop to talk to friends, veer erratically around the road; the chance of us getting mugged in the dark, far away from any kind of assistance, seems high.  We are now quite considerably deterred.
But all is well, we arrive and the worries and weariness of our long journey is soothed with broth, bread and steaming hot tea.
Next morning we meet our guide, a becapped and wellington-booted gentlemen called Juma, in the further end of his middle age.  He  tips us a nod, and we wander out of the village up into the mountains
Heading Off
We pass a few little farmsteads and hamlets, some livestock and some bemused cows
Some Bemused Cows
The initial going is not too bad, some inclines but not too steep, some log bridges to cross over streams, a few little fordlets to wade through but generallly nothing too strenuous...

A gnarly old tree - Gnarly!
But then we reach the snow and my coordination goes haywire.   In places two feet deep, every step felt like 10 steps on normal ground, feet sunk into the snow, the tent kept falling off my backpack and I was swaying like an uncoordinated drunk with a wooden leg.  The fact that my other companions, including a man at least a quarter century older than I, seemed to be making light work of it, made me feel like a hobbit struggling up Caradhras whilst Legolas the elf lightfoots it effortlessly over the top of the snow.
As night fell, we were still some 40 minutes short of our chosen destination, but decided to camp by a smaller lake
We set up camp and Juma lit a small fire, whipped out a cooking pot and proceeded to whip-up the kind of stodgy, filling, carb-heavy magic that you need after a hard days trekking.

Dog tired, we roll into bed.  Just as I am beginning to drift off into the realms of the unawake, the rain starts. It proceeds to rain (or snow, or sleat) solidly all night.  At 4am, we awake to find the outer tent area flooded, and our shoes and bags sopping wet.  Buggar!
Morning dawned, crisp and clear, but we ignored it completely and slept on through til 11:30.  When we finally dragged ourselves out of our pit, it was to discover that Juma had miraculously managed to get a good fire going with wet-through, green wood and was warming up some чай (chai = tea).  We also got a good look at the stunning frozen lake we'd glimpsed in the half light; great concentric circles of different thicknesses of ice created swirling patterns over the lake and there was one end where the lake was not frozen, where the water formed a shape that could best be described as a touch phallic

The willy-shaped water
Juma whiled away the breakfast by whittling me a walking cane to try and counterbalance my total inability to stay upright.
We trekked the 40 minutes to the main lake, a stunning great alpine vista of snow-capped mountains and denuded trees still far short of springs first budding.
We sat for some time by the lakeside musing on the transient nature of travelling life.  D. Solid explained to us  his theory that keeping relationships going had been made more complex in the last fifty years or so by two factors; globalisation and feminism.  It is an itriguing theory, which probably has a fair ammount of truth in it, but as he pointed out, more complex doesn't necessarilly mean worse.   We learn from Stuart that one of the former London School teachers, who had a fling with a German girl while living in Bishkek, had just moved to Munich to be with her, having kept contact through a good few of months of him living back in the states.  More difficult indeed, but not impssible.

Stuart Colquhuan - Gentleman Adventurer
Myself - doing that smiling, posing, nonsense
Having taken our heady fill of intelectual debate and emotional ramblings, we equalised the mood somewhat by throwing stones at the lake and prodding it with a big stick.  That done, we took our leave of the grandeur and trundled back to camp.


The rest of the day past by with us trying, with fairly limited success, to keep a fire going that Juma had begun and perfected with seeming ease before wandering off to prep the tea.  The evening saw us curled up in the bloody-chilly confines of our tent (thanks for the hot-water bottle mum, you are a lifesaver) playing a game of Texas Hold 'em Poker by the light of a single mobile phone. 
Keeping the home fires burning (just)
The walk back down was a much more gentle affair, with rolling slopes rather than steep inclines, which all went well until I got cramp and shooting pains in my right foot, causing me to exclame every few hobbled steps, like some half-mad, invalid, drill sergeant

Wild Garlic growing by the wayside
                                                                                       We stopped on the way to pick some wild garlic that Juma pointed out on the roadside. The stinging, allium, tartness of the leaves was a great pleasure to taste and D-Solid and Stuart gathered a loud with the intention of making wild garlic soup on their return.


Gathering Wild Garlic

Our return leg was no less eventful.  We accepted a sum of 5500 som to take us back to Bishkek, from a village guy who clearly didn't want to go all the way.  Stuart's lack of haggling incensed D-Solid, but I was inclined to be on Stuart's side, we could afford it and this was just some poor village fellow who couldn't afford any extravagances, only essentials.  When we discovered that his 80s monstrosity of a car had tinted windows and a souped up sound system complete with dayglo tweeters and big-ass subwoofers, I felt less positively inclined.  We reached the crossroads town of Tosh Komur and he had a quick chat with another taxi driver who agreed to take us back the rest of the way for the agreed sum.  No rats were sniffed until a moment before the guy sped off, when Stuart jumped out to check the details.  Too late the cry went out!  The guy was no more than a cloud of dust and a burst of dopler-effected Kyrgyz dance music toss.   We had been jipped for a thousand som.  We ended up paying the same ammount, but had to share the taxi with an extra passenger.  Curses were laid on the double dealing swine, the taxi driver was amused at our naivity.  In fact, amused turned out to be his default setting and the rest of the journey back was highly convivial.  That is until, about twenty minutes outside of Bishkek, a chunk of the back of the car fell of with a resounding screach and thud.  We pulled over to the roadside, a cloth was laid on the ground, and the driver borrowed my walking stick to knock the still half-attached lump of vehicle onto the ground and deposited it in the boot (Americans read 'trunk'). Crisis averted, we made our way back to our homes and warm beds, or in my case made my way back to Anton's Bar for a few bevvies.

In other shamelessly unrelated news crudely tagged on the end, I had my first operatic experience in the form of a ticket costing the princely sum of £2.80 to go and see La Traviatta at the Opera and Ballet Theatre.  It was a real pleasure, the opulence of the setting not entirely met by some of the male leads reedy voices. and the chorus being sung in Russian while the leads warbled away in Italian took a bit to get used to.  But the Prima Donna had a cracking voice and the music was stirring and powerful.  I have not the slighest clue how they could be breaking even with the event, as their were four extravagent sets and not that many more people in the audience than were onstage, but it was a ine evening.

So, mountains, mishaps, earthquakes and opera have been the flavours of my last few weeks. 

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